by former OCMGA Master Gardener Jess Wickland
I remember climbing the steps of my grandma’s house when I was little, examining the containers on her front porch. In summer, she had the typical spike, red geraniums and vinca vine. Once fall rolled around, the declining summer annuals were replaced with splashes of maroon or yellow mums, or sometimes some purple asters. I love my grandma dearly, but sometimes you have to break away from the mold and explore other options. (sidenote: this year she planted begonias — livin’ on the wild side!)
I have seen a lot of creative container ideas each year, some better than the last. One particular display I was very impressed with used pumpkins and squash in the larger containers, planted between flowers, and they were set on hay bales to give it that autumn feel. Some people like to use corn stalks to decorate their front doors; why not use that as a back drop and carefully place some containers around them? It’ll still let you have the vertical appeal of the corn stalks, but adds a little extra color. Some people even prefer to use different colored pots for fall decorations. There are greens, blues or blacks for summer arrangements, but as the autumn colors peak on the trees, the maroon, copper or even terra cotta pots come out to hold the vibrant fall arrangements.
What plants can be used in these arrangements in the fall? Some may prefer to use the stand-by: mums or asters. Mums now come in a rainbow of colors, and asters are a few shades of pink, purple or lavender. However, if you want to have plants that are bolder and don’t resemble my grandma’s fall containers, there is quite a selection to choose from at garden centers these days. My favorite plant for fall containers is the temperennial rudbeckias. Their blooms are much larger and showier than the perennial ‘Goldsturm’ we are accustomed to seeing, and are now being hybridized to be available in maroon, with green centers, or with bicolored petals. Ornamental peppers are making their way to the top of many homeowners’ lists, too. Most have small fruit that start out green and change to red or yellow as the nights get cooler. However, a newer variety has purple peppers on it if you prefer the darker colors or want to create a container with asters or kale. Speaking of kale, it’s a wonderful addition to the fall landscape. Many times, if we have a milder fall, kale can be seen “blooming” until Christmas. The colors become more pronounced as the temperatures get colder. There are a lot of different types of kale — some are more upright, while others are shorter and resemble small cabbage heads instead.
If corn stalks aren’t your cup of tea, but you still want a vertical accent for your fall arrangements, consider using ornamental grasses. There are quite a few varieties that will do well in this climate and can be planted into the perennial gardens (Calamagrostis ‘Karl Foerster’ or Miscanthus purpurescens are just a couple of examples); however, there are some shorter grasses that still pack a punch, such as Toffee Twist. If perennials are what you prefer to use, fall blooming Sedum may be the way to go. One favorite of mine is called Sedum sieboldii, or October Daphne. It’s foliage is a small rosette of blue succulent leaves, and the flowers are round pink balls that open in late September or October. You can use this one to trail over the edges of pots.
Of course, there are the tried-and-true uprights like ‘Autumn Joy’ or ‘Autumn Fire’, if vertical height is what you need. Another great perennial for fall container gardens are coral bells (Heuchera). With so many colors on the market, you’re sure to find the size and shade you’re looking for. Breaking free of the mold is something that a gardener needs to do from time to time. Why not start a trend and try to incorporate gourds, squash or pumpkins in with your fall blooming plants. Try something new — you may be pleasantly surprised!